Journalism in the Public Interest

New Details in the bin Laden Docs: Portrait of a Fugitive Micro-Manager

Al Qaeda leader’s writings discuss everything from targeting U.S. leaders to personality clashes among militants.


Al Qaeda Leader Osama bin Laden (Rahimullah Yousafzai/AP Photo, File)

During his final years, Osama bin Laden expressed interest in everything from killing President Obama to his deputies' personalities to an article in an extremist magazine that he didn't like, according to two U.S. officials familiar with material seized during the raid that killed bin Laden.

A trove of digital communications and hand-written notes show how bin Laden ran his weakened network from his solitary hideout in a garrison town in Pakistan. He was especially engaged in decisions about leadership posts and developing plots, the officials said.

Bin Laden's writings discuss his strategic goal of carrying out attacks that would prevent President Obama from being re-elected, though he also wrote that "the alternative could be worse," a U.S. counterterror official said.

"He talks about targeting priorities," the counterterror official said. "He says the president is of course the top target if you could get a shot at him. Also the military chiefs like the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the defense secretary, top military people. There is a note indicating that the vice president is not an important target because that position has less weight."

The passage was less a discussion of concrete assassination plots than strategic musings, the counterterror official said. Another U.S official said it was part of a message intended for a deputy. It is not always clear if the messages were actually delivered. The material has been translated from Arabic and culled from computers, discs, thumb drives and bin Laden's handwritten notes, said the officials, who spoke to ProPublica on condition of anonymity.

Bin Laden clearly played a role in al Qaeda's operational, tactical and strategic planning, the officials said. That contrasts with assertions by officials in Pakistan and the West over the years that he was dead, in another country or cut off from his network.

"You could describe him as a micro-manager," a U.S. official said. "The cumbersome process he had to follow for security reasons did not prevent him from playing a role...He was down in the weeds as far as best operatives, best targets, best timing."

Bin Laden was bent on inflicting mass-casualty attacks on the West, the U.S. official said. At the same time, however, he criticized an online propaganda magazine edited by a young American in Yemen, saying the bloodthirsty tone of an article could harm al Qaeda's image among Muslims, according to the U.S. counterterror official.

The magazine, called Inspire, "apparently discussed using a tractor or farm vehicle in an attack outfitted with blades or swords as a fearsome killing machine," the official said. "Bin Laden said this is something he did not endorse. He seems taken aback. He complains that this tactical proposal promotes indiscriminate slaughter. He says he rejects this and it is not something that reflects what al Qaeda does."

The sentiment apparently evokes bin Laden's concern -- previously expressed in al Qaeda letters intercepted in 2004 -- about backlash among Muslims who feel the network has gone to violent extremes, especially in Iraq, and killed many Muslims in the process.

A clandestine courier system enabled bin Laden to send strategic directives to the network's core in Pakistan and its affiliates overseas, but he was hampered by the lack of phone and Internet access in his compound -- a measure to avoid detection.

"In a sense what we have here is internal discussion," the counterterror official said. "And also you have a leader alone, writing down his thoughts... It's kind of like the old concept in the Navy when captains thought they might lose visual contact. They needed to know the commander's intent in the contingency of having to make decisions on their own. When bin Laden writes to his deputies, he is reinforcing their knowledge of the commander's intent."

Bin Laden communicated with deputies such as Mustafa Abu-Yazid, a veteran Egyptian boss who was al Qaeda's operations chief until he was killed in a U.S. missile strike last year, according to the official. Yazid, based in the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan, sent outgoing orders to commanders in Pakistan or affiliates in other countries, and relayed their messages to bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad near Pakistan's capital.

The courier system also permitted bin Laden to communicate directly with other deputies, the U.S. official said.

One exchange shows Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian ideologue regarded as the number two chief of al Qaeda, communicating with bin Laden through Yazid, who most Western counterterror officials saw as number three in the hierarchy.

The leaders discussed the personality of an up-and-coming Libyan leader named Atiyah Abd-al-Rehman, known widely as Atiyah, the officials said.

"Bin laden tells Yazid that other leaders have told him that Atiyah is seen as a bit undiplomatic and heavy-handed in his dealings with others in the group," the counterterror official said. "Bin laden's language indicates that he likes Atiyah, but he is mentioning the discussions about Atiyah that he has heard from others in AQ."

Despite his perceived charm deficiency, Atiyah's star has risen. After Yazid was killed, bin Laden appointed Atiyah as operations chief, according to Western counterterror officials. Last month, German police arrested three suspected Moroccan militants in Dusseldorf accused of preparing a bomb attack on a transportation target. The suspects were in contact with Atiyah and Younus the Mauritanian, a chief in Pakistan who has been leading operations against foreign targets, officials say.

Bin Laden ordered Atiyah and Younus to concentrate on attacking Europe and the United States, the officials said.

Evidence in a pending court trial in Chicago reveals that "the elders," whom court papers identify as the top al Qaeda leadership, were eager to execute a plot against a Danish newspaper that had published caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed. That plot was aborted in late 2009.

The Associated Press reported tonight that some of bin Laden's writings show him musing over how many Americans he would have to kill to force the U.S. to withdraw from the Arab world and concluding that the body count would have to be in the thousands.

Bin Laden also managed to retain authority over al Qaeda's affiliates in Yemen, North Africa and Iraq, the U.S. official said.

"It was not the same degree of detailed involvement, but he played a huge role in leadership," the U.S. official said.

The materials seized during the May 1 raid in Abbottabad indicate that Bin Laden communicated with the network's most active and dangerous wing, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, through his operations deputy in Pakistan, who forwarded directives through emails and couriers to the affiliate's leaders in Yemen, the counterterror official said.

Intelligence gathered months before the raid revealed a tell-tale exchange with the al Qaeda leader in Yemen. The leader, a Yemeni, wrote to bin Laden with a surprising proposal: He suggested that he step down as chief of the affiliate in favor of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Yemeni-American ideologue. Awlaki's influence has been revealed in a string of recent plots against the U.S., including the attempted Christmas bombing on a Detroit-bound flight in 2009.

The leader explained that naming Awlaki as his replacement would be a propaganda coup. It would take advantage of the cleric's popularity among Westerners, especially Americans, and have a strong impact on recruitment, according to the counterterror official.

The leader in Pakistan rejected the proposal, however, according to the official. "Bin laden's message was essentially, I know you. I trust you. Let's keep things the way they are."

Awlaki has eluded a number of U.S. missile strikes on his suspected refuge in Yemen.

The U.S. task force that is poring over the intelligence haul from the raid has three priorities: detecting imminent plots, tracking other al Qaeda leaders and investigating bin Laden's support network in Pakistan. The last task confronts a delicate question: whether Pakistani security forces were involved in protecting bin Laden, who spent at least five years in the compound near a military academy.

"There is no evidence that the Pakistani government knew he was there," the U.S. official said. "But the questions still have to be answered."

The Mowing Machine is clearly a Ford150 truck, not the disinfo the “official” said.

MajorVariola is right about the F150, because “Inspire” is in english and online and has been previously reported on widely.  So why is the government improving a narrative that contradicts well-circulated publicly available facts?  It makes me think of the leak that came from the Hillary camp after she announced she will not serve another term, describing his foreign policy team as “amateur night.”  Immaterial improvisations undermine credibility on major issues, and is always exposed in info age, so WTF.

Propublica continues to be a mouth piece for the govt propaganda.  I would much prefer to read a story about how Mr. Rotella and Propublica are attempting to force the govt to provide proof of ANYTHING they are saying about Bin Laden, his “inteligence stockpile” or his death.

“according to two U.S. officials familiar ”  rings hollow these days.
There have been so many official lies attempting to scare the American people and justify heavy expenditures, could we at least authenticate whatever material comes out of the Abbottabad compound through some third party?

I am on the same page as WTF.

We have had enough of Jessica Lynch and Pat Tillman type spins,

John Wheat Gibson, Sr.

May 12, 2011, 6:31 p.m.

I agree with Erichwwk and WTF.  I am sorely disappointed to see ProPublica satisfied with the attribution “two US officials.”  What ever happened to independent journalistic verification?  How about fairness, instead of blindly taking der Fuehrer at his word?  “Evidence in a pending court trial reveals,” my ass.  Have we journalists learned nothing about government propaganda from the German experience 1933-44?

To call for some kind of “independent verification” is a noble sentiment. But given that these are intelligence materials only recently obtained and only given the most cursory viewing by US officials themselves, to expect Pro Publica to be allowed some independent access is truly dreaming. Maybe we’ll get something like that in several years.

Brian Holtkamp

May 12, 2011, 8:16 p.m.

Why do people even continue to read this mindlessly indulgent BS? Bin Laden is dead. Al Quaeda is at this point pointless to pursue under the ends already established. Also, did anyone else notice the fact that Obama’s approval ratings were at their all-time lowest at the time this “weapon of mass distraction” was released? And yet I see some with smug smiles on their face from “Bin Laden’s” supposed capture, when heresay that cannot be proven by much of anybody (especially since, hey, we’re talking about a government that’s been being deceitful for quite some time) has been the order of the day for administrations since well before Bush, to say the least. Why do we believe anything coming out of their mouths anymore? It’s most all been a pack of lies. Obama, like his predacessor, is being used as a puppet, by whom we don’t know in specific. And it’s shown this whole time, if you know where to look.

John Wheat Gibson

May 12, 2011, 8:27 p.m.

Chris, you have no way of knowing that “these are intelligence materials only recently obtained.”  All you know is that der Fuehrer claims the are.  These “diaries” smell an awful lot like the “documents” that were conveniently “found” in a car near the Boston airport just after the 9-11 disaster, explaining who dunnit.

That people want to believe their leaders, and so take their statements at face value, largely explains the Third Reich, and the executive branch of the United States that now boasts of practicing torture, imprisoning people indefinitely without trial, often in solitary confinement and no contact with family or legal counsel, assassassinating individuals all over the world with impunity, murdering millions abroad in their own homes, and fabricating lies like the Kuwait incubator farce and Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.  And despite the proven history of lies, the US media and the idiot masses continue to goose-step gullibly behind The Leader.

Carol Davidek-Waller

May 12, 2011, 8:49 p.m.

How do you know that these documents and email are genuine?

Connie DeJong

May 12, 2011, 11:13 p.m.

I also am disgusted with the lies and BS we have been fed by our “by the people” government.  If ProPublica is what they say they are, I would suggest investigating the legitimacy of this story.  The only reason to create such a fable is to save face when we pull the military out of the middle east. If Obama (and our congress) does this, then I’ll concede and go along with the BS line, as a means to the end.  Otherwise, it is just another conjured up fairy tale to keep the masses aligned, a very poor one at that as one can see from the comments above.

Have all of you been drinking the FOX News kool-aid again?  You need to get a life.  You’ve all joined the ranks of the “birthers” and Tea Party members….sad!

Stuart Davies

May 13, 2011, 12:46 p.m.

Osama Bin dead since 2002. You guys are falling for an elaborate corporate state hoax.

John Wheat Gibson

May 13, 2011, 12:53 p.m.

Der Fuehrer never would lie to Didi!  You have to be crazy to doubt der Fuehrer.

Tea Party, Didi?  The vanguard of the lumpen proletariat!

Raymond Tindell

May 13, 2011, 7:44 p.m.

do we really know anything that is told to us in the media or by government officials… is really an exercise in blind faith

john wheat gibson, sr

May 13, 2011, 8:28 p.m.

Not blind faith, hermano.  Scrupulous searching in many sources, taking into account the axes they grind, but always aware that our conclusions could be wrong, and reticence when urged to murder Iraqis, Libyans, or anybody else for their own good.  Blind faith is for our friends who worship Der Government.

Bin Laden never existed. Think about it.

How refreshing to see so many intelligent comments from critical thinkers who are not believing the BS that passes for reporting. Anyone who believes that OBL lived beyond 2001 and had anything to do with the murders in the US in late summer of 2001, is either not paying attention or suffering from cognitive disonance.

Yes the “official” report said…..give me a break.

OMG this is obviously a total hoax put forth by an evil conglomerate that controls the united states. Watch out they are plotting to kill all the cute babies.

John Wheat Gibson, Sr.

May 17, 2011, 11:04 p.m.

Don’t be stupid, Matt.  There is nothing evil in the United States, and, besides, der Fuehrer loves you and has everything under control.-

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the most likely situation is that the gov’t doesn’t have a whole hell of a lot of actionable intelligence from the bin Laden raid. Think about it: A truck outfitted with swords and other blades. I’m fairly sure that when bin Laden saw that he didn’t just reject it, he thought it was a pretty stupid idea.

My point is this: most of the data on those computers, discs and such that the gov’t can read is most likely not all that important. The really important stuff is probably encrypted using very strong keys. Osama bin Laden was an evil man, but not stupid. Imagine that somehow somebody was able to attack and hold the CIA offices long enough to get away with a bunch of computers, hard drives and discs. How much useful information do you think they would actually get away with? Probably not much. Conceivably, if it was a foreign government with a lot of resources (read “Advanced computing power”) over the the span of several years (read “Possibly several hundred years”) they might be able to glean some bit of information that would possibly be so far out of date that it no longer matters.

Anyway, a lesser point would be to cut the gov’t some slack. They have to release something.

US government wants to have it both ways: Osama left behind a “treasure trove” of information…. and alternately, he was a much diminished figure who had far less importance as an enemy of the U.S. than he had formerly. Shall we believe both? Cognitive dissonance…This piece doesn’t help much if at all.

Wow the comment section makes this article worthwhile! The Jessie Ventura fanclub emerges from their parents basement to ferret out conspiracy around every corner. What are your guy’s thoughts on whether Marilyn Manson is the grown up Paul from the WonderYears?

Weak attempt at cleverness, Tyler. But iIn your case it’s not cognitive dissonance, it’s stupidity. Case, and comments closed.

Aside from Tyler, your report seems to have attracted the attention of a typical parade from the lunatic fringe.In their dark sinister world of outrageous conspiracies we receive only lies from the leaders we have elected. The political elite, from the President on down have such an evil agenda that they will do anything to keep this whole War on Terror on the boil….not stopping short of mass murder of its own citizens. The real, obvious cases of such leaders…in Syria or Lybya for example, who no doubt fantasize about having trucks that could mow down their opponents and anyone else nearby dont get such close attention. In spite of the thousands of dedicated journalists throughout the world who have devoted their professional lives to exposing the facts surrounding this global war, not an iota of credible evidence for these absurd conspiracy theories come to light.During more peaceful periods we have only to endure their UFO rantings. But now, their constant BS could also have been cooked up in Abbotabad. Who would benefit if the American people actually believed their stupid theories?
Dont they have a few competent journalists embedded in the global media who could produce actual evidence to back them up? You know…like actual witnesses! Perhaps they could have found by now one member of the company of sappers who would have been needed to wire up the explosives to bring down the WTC. Surely a few of them must have become a little uncomfortable by now with their role in killing 3,000 people. Even a comparitively minor plot like Watergate became unravelled when a couple of journalists started to look more closely.
There are millions of you who scream for the ‘Truth’. Go out and do the hard work of discovering evidence rather than sitting in your little rooms trawling the sites devoted to your reactionary conspiracy theories.
Goebbels would have appreciated you. Your theories lead to the same outcomes he dreamt of. Perhaps the Nazis are, as well, mere inventions…like you believe Al Quaida to be.

John Wheat Gibson, Sr.

June 5, 2011, 9:42 p.m.

“I am not blaming those who are resolved to rule, only those who show an even greater readiness to submit.”  - Thucydides

A lot of the comments on this site are daft. Bin Laden died in 2001? According to who? Sure we’d be fools to believe everything the government says, but we’d be just as foolish to believe you. Who are your sources? Why are they more credible? Who funds them?

Al Qaeda’s deputy eulogized OBL yesterday, and the Taliban mourned him last month. Are they both in on it too? Are they fake organizations put together by the CIA and “Der Fuehrer” to justify wars everywhere? And lemme guess…these CIA funded groups are killing Americans to make it look real?

Dude…all governments lie. So do all companies. So does everyone. Boyfriends lie to girlfriends about going to strip-clubs. Teenagers lie about porn to their parents. Corporations massage balance sheets to reflect the image they want to put forth. I lied to my boss and took a sick day when I wasn’t sick. But not everything is a massive conspiracy that only you see through. Sometimes, terrorists exist. Sometimes, even a president you hate makes a good call and instructs the best military in the world to kill said terrorist. Said terrorist might leave documents behind. Get over it. You aren’t the only ones who hate Obama or Bush or the Government. I’m not the biggest BO fan myself. But you have to apply this “critical thinking” you say you possess to the arguments you’re putting forth. You sound very much like Glenn Beck. The entire planet is caught in some massive conspiracy, but you, random poster on a website, you see through it all? 

Btw…these random comparisons to Nazi Germany are tired and disrespectful. Tired because they’re stupid and completely unfounded. Who has he tried to eradicate? He’s a socialist warlord, but he’s also being controlled by some faceless conglomerate behind the scenes? Common sense say those two things don’t go together.

john wheat gibson, sr.

June 10, 2011, 3:26 p.m.

If “Observer” thinks Obomber is a “socialist” then “Observer” is even dumber than Glen Beck.  And of course, it was people like “Observer” who made possible the rise of the Third Reich and the Nazi atrocities:  they simply refused to believe that their rulers were capable of war of aggression, water-boarding, using depleted uranium weapons, mass murder by high tech, or manipulation of criminal prosecutions for political purposes.  And so, thinking themselves innocent and acting only in self defense, they went goose-stepping behind der Fuehrer, to the ruin of their nation, just like “Observer.”

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